All or Nothing at the Cannes Film Festival

Uncertainty Principles

 Cannes, FranceSay this for the circus of iron discipline and sun-baked self-indulgence that constitutes the Cannes Film Festival: It's a critic's way of knowledge, a 12-day peyote trip that more or less compels reacquaintance with the parameters of one's particular taste.

To judge from reviews, conversations, and daily polls, hardly any of the several thousand assembled critics would have awarded the festival's Palme d'Or to Roman Polanski's The Pianist, adapted from the memoirs of Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman. Neither, perhaps, would any of the nine jurors if they were act-ing individually. In sifting through a competition widely considered the strongest of recent years, David Lynch and his colleagues gave prizes to over a third of the 22 eligible films—albeit recognizing only one of the five competing movies that most impressed this writer.

I appreciate the jury awards to Aki Kaurismäki's engaging, relatively light comedy The Man Without a Past and understand the enthusiasm for Elia Suleiman's sardonic Palestinian fantasy Divine Intervention, but heading my personal gang of five (which also includes Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Son, Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures, and Manoel de Oliveira's The Uncertainty Principle) was David Cronenberg's sensationally grim Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes as a barely coherent schizophrenic off his meds and wandering through the rubble of his East London childhood.

Key Witnesses: The Pianist's Brody and Polanski
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Key Witnesses: The Pianist's Brody and Polanski

Brilliantly adapting Patrick McGrath's first-person novel, Cronenberg handles his delusional hero's flashbacks and fantasies with total assurance. Unlike A Beautiful Mind, to which Spider was habitually compared, the rules that govern the protagonist's consciousness are scrupulously fair and the mood sustained throughout. The movie is as much designed as directed. The environment is drab but hardly naturalistic—a color-muted, emptied-out world in which an enormous gas tank serves as the presiding deity and various manifestations of Miranda Richardson come to embody all women.

Interestingly, Spider's dark humor, precise mise-en-scène, claustrophobic rigor, and unflinching dehumanization were closer to vintage Polanski than anything else in competition—even The Pianist. Still, Polanski's comeback opus was neither as familiar nor as bland as some would have it. The movie is hampered by awkward exposition and a slack script, but its violently absurd and vividly detailed representation of the Warsaw ghetto, re-created on a German soundstage, is unprecedented in its emphasis on class, crazies, and especially children. At its laconic best, this hour-long stretch equals anything that Polanski has ever done.

Several were put off by the movie's passive hero (played with beaky elegance by Adrien Brody), although the musician's random survival is part of the movie's point. The opening scene has Szpilman attempting to play the piano through the German aerial attack—displaying a composure that is scarcely ever broken until the deportation of his family sends him weeping through streets of ghetto detritus, stumbling over corpses and into a trashed hovel. There, he's unexpectedly saved once more—pulled by an acquaintance into a hidey-hole, where he lies upside down and babbling.

The subjectivity of The Pianist and Spider aside, the competition was ruled by social realism—in all its varieties. There was the beatified naturalism of Mike Leigh's All or Nothing—a sort of kitchen-sink baroque enlivened by a gallery of Dickensian grotesques—and the lyrical underdog daze of Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past (seemingly the festival's most critically beloved film). Although less ostentatiously minimal than classics like Ariel or The Match Factory Girl, this saga of Helsinki's down-and-out has passages as tense and spare as any 1950 programmer—although the movie's irresistible, One Big Union solidarity is rendered frivolous by a persistent sentimentality regarding dogs and rock bands.

Sharing little of Kaurismäki's humor, the Dardenne brothers are more didactic (and less collectivist). The brothers focus, as usual, on the nuts and bolts of making a living. But for all its quasi-documentary materialism, The Son is a religious tract on one man's desire to return good for evil—a story that requires a measure of faith on the part of the viewer. More conventional and considerably less moving, Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen has the look of verité and a narrative harking back to the Warner Bros. slum dramas of the late 1930s (albeit with a taste of Mean Streets, complete with crucial pizza parlor).

Loach's account of a good kid done in by bad surroundings seemed particularly tired in the light of Jia Zhangke's Unknown Pleasures, which, like his previous features Xiao Wu and Platform, elevates Chinese cinema to a new level. Two unemployed boys vegetate in the ugly provincial city of Datong—hanging around a rec center with the feel of a derelict factory, making occasional trips to cave-like discos, dank noodle houses, and tawdry video parlors. One seems addicted to a cartoon version of The Monkey King; the other pursues a pretty dancer with a Cleopatra wig who performs with the Mongolian King Liquor troupe. Meanwhile, TV transmits reports on the downed U.S. plane or a terrorist explosion in a local mill. Everything is crowded, shabby, and despoiled; everyone is mercenary or depressed. Jia's formalist social realism frames people in their environment and observes them in real time. Unlike Sweet Sixteen, which works neither as doc nor drama, Unknown Pleasures is triumphantly both.

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